India’s national movement was special because it possessed social,
economic and environmental dimensions in addition to the political
goal of Independence. And special among its participants
was Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa, born in 1892 into a talented family
of Tamil Christians originating, close to India’s southernmost tip, in
In Public Finance and India’s Poverty, his master’s thesis at New
York’s Columbia University, Kumarappa wrote in 1928 that the state
not only had to curb the profligacy of the individual, it had to limit
the danger that wasteful use of resources ‘may entail on the coming
In that same year, a man Kumarappa was yet to know, Mohandas
Karamchand Gandhi, wrote in his journal Young India:
God forbid that India should take to industrialization after the manner of the
West. The economic impact of one single tiny island kingdom today is keeping
the world in chains. If an entire nation of three hundred million took to
similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts (Young
India, 20 Dec 1928).
Obviously fated to meet, the two did so on 30 May 1929 in
Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Some days after this
meeting, Joseph, wearing a three-piece suit, arrived at a khadi bhandar
in Mumbai’s Kalbadevi district and asked to be measured for a dhoti.
Told by a salesman that dhotis came in fixed lengths, Kumarappa
ordered six dhotis of recommended size as also six kurtas and six
Thus equipped, he returned to Ahmedabad to teach at Gujarat
Vidyapith, the national university started by Gandhi in 1920. Students
were amused by the initially unsuccessful attempts of their
new professor to sit cross-legged on the floor to eat with them, but
Gandhi had observed (as he would later say to Madan Mohan
Malaviya) that Kumarappa had come ‘ready-made’ to him (p. 48).
From the start, Gandhi also knew (as he would later tell
Kumarappa) that he had to ‘grab’ the Christian Tamilian (39fn).
The lifelong relationship that ensued between the two was not however
that of master-and-disciple.
As Govindu and Maghlan put it, Kumarappa displayed, in relation
to Gandhi, a ‘congruent but independent trajectory of intellectual
and moral evolution’. Each affected the other. For example, the
authors suggest persuasively that Gandhi’s radical proposal near the
end of his life for the Congress to turn into a Lok Sevak Sangh was
influenced by a Kumarappa article in March 1947 ...
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